Thursday, September 15, 2016

Spartacus (1960): A Review


Much has been made over the fact that Spartacus broke the blacklist by placing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's name on the credits rather than using a front or a pseudonym.  Much has also been made over the fact that Spartacus is not a Biblical epic but just feels like one.  Much also has been made about Spartacus' censored scene involving a provocative bath between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis where Trumbo's dialogue suggests homo/bisexual intentions.  This scene, as overt as anything during the last days of the Eisenhower era was so risqué that it was cut and restored with Anthony Hopkins 'voicing' the late Olivier's dialogue while Curtis, still alive at the time, coming back to redub the daring dialogue.

Another time, as part of my The Politics Of... series, I'll tackle any subliminal or overt political messages spread in Spartacus, suspect due to Trumbo's history and leftist political views.  For now, let's concentrate on the film itself, a rousing epic that thrills, entertains, moves remarkably fast, and while not perfect, has many more positives than negatives.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a Thracian slave condemned to die after attacking one of the Roman guards in the mines he is enslaved at.  In a fortuitous turn of events, gladiatorial school owner Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) comes across Spartacus and buys him along with other slaves to become gladiators.  Taken to Batiatus' gladiator school in Capua, Spartacus meets his trainer, Marcellus (Charles McGraw), who selects him as his personal whipping boy.  Spartacus meets another slave, the beautiful Varinia (Jean Simmons), with whom he falls in love with.  It's not an easy courtship, given they were introduced when Batiatus and Marcellus sent her to serve as Spartacus' "companion". 

Into this enters Crassus (Laurence Olivier), one of the major patrician leaders of the Roman Senate.  He brings with him his protégé, Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall) and two women.  Crassus calls on Batiatus to bring four gladiatorial students to put on a private show for the death.  Despite Batiatus' best efforts, he cannot dissuade the party from violating his no-kill policy, and he reluctantly gives in.  Spartacus fights the Ethiopian, Draba (Woody Strobe), but Draba refuses to kill Spartacus and attacks the patricians instead.  Only Crassus stays in his seat and mercilessly kills Draba.

Crassus also buys Varinia, and the mixture of her sale and Marcellus' one-too-many tauntings drive him over the edge: he kills Marcellus and begins a riot in the school.  Batiatus, seeing the situation start spinning out of control, offers to 'deliver' Varinia personally while his servants and guards attempt to stop the rioting slaves.  Nothing doing: Batiatus barely manages to escape with Varinia as Spartacus and his fellow slaves overrun the school and begin a full-scale slave revolt.

Back in Rome, the ensuing uprising becomes a political war between the patrician Crassus and the republican Gracchus (Charles Laughton). The bitter rivals each see in the rebellion a chance to defeat the other: Crassus using his protégé to easily crush the rebels, Gracchus, along with his protégé Julius Caesar (John Gavin) to stop Crassus' power grab.  Spartacus now has decided to not just free every slave he can find, but to lead them out of Italy thanks to Cilician pirates.  This sends the Roman empire into a full-scale panic, as Spartacus and his men plunder the estates to gather the gold to buy the pirates. 

Glabrus bungles his mission to defeat Spartacus disastrously, forcing his sponsor to retirement (though Gracchus is not fooled).  Batiatus takes refuge with his old friend Gracchus, even offering Varinia to his collection of female slaves once she's captured.  Fat chance, as Varinia and Spartacus have found each other.  Into this mix enters Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a 'singer of songs' whom Crassus has taken a very particular interest in, so particular that Antoninus flees at the first opportunity to join the insurrection.  Given that Antoninus can read, Spartacus takes him as his aide-de-camp.

The wily Senators attempt to outdo the other in their bitter feud: Gracchus has bribed the pirates to take the slaves once they reach the coast (horrifying the patrician-born Caesar), and Crassus, not to be outdone, bribes the pirates to run away as soon as the slaves reach the coast.  Crassus also organizes two opposing armies to meet Spartacus, forcing the slave commander to march towards Rome itself to save his fellow slaves.  In despair the Senate makes Crassus dictator (his ultimate goal), and he goes to meet Spartacus in battle.  At first, Spartacus' men appear to be winning, but they are surprised by Crassus' secret army that has arrived.  After their defeat, Crassus offers their lives in exchange for Spartacus living or dead.  Defiant to the end, the survivors all begin shouting, "I'M SPARTACUS!"  Crassus orders the survivors crucified.

Crassus has also found Varinia, along with her and Spartacus' child, among the few female survivors.  He dismisses Batiatus from his camp, enraging him enough to lock arms with Gracchus in one final assault on the absolute dictator: to steal Varinia from Crassus.  Crassus loses no time in squashing his political opponents, Gracchus especially.  He orders him exiled, believing him to be a good puppet to control the mob.  Caesar by this point has joined his fellow patricians, but Crassus has little illusions about Caesar's ascension.  Crassus orders Antoninus and Spartacus to fight to the death, and after Antoninus' death, Spartacus is the last to be crucified on the Appian Way.  Gracchus commits suicide rather than be used by Crassus, but not before giving Varinia and her child freedom and along with Batiatus a pass that will help them escape.  Varinia sees her husband crucified, and holds their child to him, telling him that he is free...and that his story will not be forgotten.

Spartacus is an epic, and is fully aware of it.  The massive nature of the film at times dwarves the actors, who sometimes compensate by being so wildly over-the-top that it veers close to parody.  Chief practitioner of the overacting is Douglas himself.  For all the grief that Charlton Heston gets for his at-times grandiose style of acting (and at times, rightly so), Douglas seems to be a fervent follower of that broad, broad, broad style.  His clenched/dimpled jaw tightening even in love scenes, Douglas has only one mode: perpetual intensity.  Even in those moments which call for a more gentle approach, Douglas' Spartacus appears to be always tense, always on edge.

It's surprising that some of the other performers appear to have a similar theatrical style.  Another good (or bad) example is Herbert Lom, in a small role as the Cilician pirate go-between.  His few scenes are theatrical to where one wonders whether he wants us to know he is 'acting'. 

In fact, I think it's fair to say that Spartacus isn't for the faint-of-heart acting-wise.  Almost everyone is a bit of a ham.  Ustinov, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role, can be forgiven in that Batiatus was meant to be obvious in his sycophancy and obsequiousness.  There was no subtlety to his character.  Still, given that Spartacus was a chance to see two veteran actors duel it out, one can enjoy seeing the interplay between Laughton and Olivier.  The two old masters figured this was going to be an epic and acted as they were fully aware they had big roles to play.

I think Simmons did a good job as Varinia, though in her last scenes she too went a bit theatrical.  Same can't be said for Gavin, who made stoicism his sole acting style.  Perhaps he figured with all the grandiose goings-on around him, being almost wooden would set him apart.  I'm not sure Spartacus was Curtis' best performance, but given that Antoninus was a bit sheltered as the 'singer of songs', this is another one we're willing to be more lenient with.

One aspect to Spartacus that even now is pretty shocking is the infamous "snails and oysters" scene.  The censors of the time were not the naïve simpletons they may have been painted out to be.  Reading the screenplay, even if they weren't aware who exactly wrote it, they could read between the lines perfectly well and figure that there was subvert hints of homosexuality in the dialogue.  Essentially, Crassus is telling Antoninus that his tastes include snails (penises) and oysters (vaginas), while giving the very good-looking young man the once-over.  The only way it could be more overt would be if Olivier were naked in bed and beckoning Curtis to him.

That scene was so outrageous that while it was filmed, it was cut from the release.  Restored thirty-one years later, Curtis was brought back to re-record his lines, with Anthony Hopkins reading for the late Olivier by doing an Olivier impersonation (and a pretty good one too).  Even now, with the advent of same-sex marriage, the racy dialogue and subtle glances are still pretty daring.

As for the overall script itself, give Trumbo credit: he knew how to deliver witticism and make the political battles between Gracchus and Crassus interesting.  Whatever overtones to Trumbo's own history or politics that found their way into Spartacus will be for another time.  For the moment, Trumbo's script showcased the epic nature of the story, with grandiose verbiage to compliment the grand, epic nature of the setting.

Finally, one has to complement Alex North's brilliant score (though there are many brilliant Alex North scores).  His love theme for Spartacus and Virinia does what Douglas and Simmons couldn't: make you believe these two were passionate and tender with each other.

Spartacus is not a perfect film by any means.  Some of the acting (particularly Douglas) is so over-the-top as to be ripe for parody, and somehow the love story between Spartacus and Virinia seem a bit forced, almost out of place among the battles and political intrigue.  Despite all this, Spartacus still holds up rather well, with a rousing story that while at times perhaps clunky, still moves and moves one. 

Epic in just about every way, Spartacus lives on...


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